Sam Allchurch took his audience to heart and taught them a thing or two about singing in his first subscription concert as Music Director for Sydney Chamber Choir in 2019.
Music on Music was billed as a celebration of singing as an artform, and the ‘feeling of joy that only singing can give,’ and it certainly lived up to that promise.
The concert was a joyful celebration of the power of the voice and the complexities of vocal expression, and took us on a journey across time within European, American and Australian choral works. Program notes by alto Natalie Shae provided detailed and fascinating insights into each piece and have become one of expected highlights of Sydney Chamber Choir’s concerts.
Before he moves to London in September to take up a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, we were lucky to experience the stunning artistry of emerging organist Joshua Ryan, currently Assistant Organist of St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney.
In the spirit of old versus new, the concert featured one of the oldest liturgical texts in Paul Stanhope’s Cherubic Hymn from 275AD, to Joseph Twist’s 2011 work How Shall We Sing in a Strange Land, with text from Oodgeroo of the tribe Noonuccal’s Song of Hope written in 1960.
Nothing much beats Sydney Chamber Choir in full flight, and we were treated to that in Herbert Howells’ A Hymn for St Cecilia, the patron saint of music. The soaring descant swept us up into the roof of the Sydney University Great Hall, with a ‘vision of song so beautiful that even the angels stop to listen.’
After the softness and delicacy of William Byrd’s Quomodo Cantabimus, we experienced the sombre and then joyful Joseph Twist, How Shall We Sing in a Strange Land. The piece has a powerful texture where the choir chants and then in contrast whispers, exquisitely laced with soprano soloist Josephine Gibson. Are we facing a ‘new Dream Time’ as Oodgeroo of the tribe Noonuccal had hoped?
Elliott Gyger took the audience ‘back to the raw materials of music itself,’ as elements of the building blocks of teaching notes on a scale, solfège, were intertwined in the story of John the Baptist’s birth.
James MacMillan’s beautiful setting of verses from Psalm 96, A New Song, transported us into the tradition of singing from his Gaelic heritage, with a majestic organ section ending the ‘shimmering, iridescent and hazy’ musical effects.
As we hurtle towards Easter, the Sydney Chamber Choir joined in a weekend of Bach performances from Song Company and the newly formed Bach Akademie Australia. Accentuated by a solo quartet of Josie Ryan, Alison Lockhart, Richard Sanchez and Joshua Murray, the joyful Singet dem Herrn saw the choir split into two, ‘tossing phrases back and forth’, finishing with a rollicking ‘Hallelujah’.
How lovely to catch our breath with the choir world over wine and refreshments in the antechamber before we distilled our thoughts in Elliott Carter’s setting to Emily Dickinson’s Musicians Wrestle Everywhere. Allchurch continued his exploration of the art of singing with the 15thcentury Josquin Des Prez’s Nimphes des bois. This homage to Ockeghem included a ‘mass in any key’, an ingenious piece which ‘will work harmonically no matter what key signature you put in front of it’. I wonder who else will try that?
Spreading the choir out to the edges of the Great Hall we were treated to a mass from the composer said to be the ‘epitome of Renaissance polyphony’, Palestrina. His Missa ut re mi fa so la: Kyrie (there’s that solfègeagain!) was a spiritual and charming moment that showcased the choir’s individual voices at a greater distance to the audience, interweaving with the overall choral sound.
After an illuminated twist to the East in Stanhope’s Cherubic Hymn, with soprano Megan Cronin and bass Sam Piper, we are treated to the modernist Sir Michael Tippett’s Dance, Clarion Air, with Wei Jiang as soprano solo.
Allchurch chose English poet Christopher Smart to finish the concert, with Benjamin Britten’s cantata composed in 1943, Rejoice in the Lamb. Sydney Chamber Choir prides itself on its singers’ flexibility, as solos featuring Lindy Montgomery (soprano), Natalie Shea (alto), Christopher Othen (tenor) and Ed Suttle (bass) took flight.
Smart, who spent six years controversially confined in an asylum, swings between ‘insight and incomprehensibility’, and Britten’s musical collage from chorus, organ and soloists was delivered with sheer brilliance. Bravo Sam Allchurch, the brilliant baton of Richard Gill AO has been securely and safely passed into your wise and caring hands. Encore!